Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Moro biography of Sonia is a cooked-up job. But it glorifies the family, so why the 'ban?'


What was all that highfalutin Congress campaign against The Red Sari, a so-called biography of Sonia Gandhi? Now that the book is available in India, anyone can see that it is a sympathetic glorification of Sonia and her family. It is likely, therefore, that the unofficial ban the Congress managed to impose on the book for seven years was a marketing manoeurve to boost sales. Author Javier Moro must be grateful to the Knight Superior of the Congress crusade, Abhishek Manu Singhvi.

Singhvi was right when he objected to "imaginary and invented conversations" in the book. In some editions, the book is actually described as "A novel". The Indian edition's subtitle is "A dramatised biography". Either way, it is largely a cooked-up job making the narrative thoroughly unreliable. But it is not defamatory, as Singhvi and company claim. It is in fact laudatory. Consider some of the declarations:

"Indira was deeply grateful for the stability that Sonia brought into her life..." Rajiv was "a good professional, a good worker, amiable, good-natured, indifferent to hierarchy, polite, docile, a decent student..." And Sonia, "a loving mother, very meticulous with her children's upbringing, prudent, hardworking, conscientious with an eye for detail..." Stuff like this is defamatory?

Even the imaginary and invented stuff is effusive. "When Rajiv took her hand as they were walking, Sonia had no strength to pull it back?" How did Moro know? Rajiv was attracted to Sonia because "she represented the anonymity of the middleclass; in other words, freedom, which is what a young man of twenty-one who had grown up in a gilded cage most desired". How did he know? Sonia's "legs trembled" as she met Indira Gandhi for the first time.... After the Allahabad judgment disqualified Indira. "Deep down, she would have liked her mother-in-law to resign because that was correct from a moral point of view". Oh, yeah? How did he know such deep-down morals?

If the Congress objected to the book in spite of all the adulatory imaginings of the author, one reason must be that it went against Sonia's exaggerated notions about her privacy. She is a public person and her right to privacy is subject to the overriding rights of the people. But Congressmen put Sonia above all else, hence their sensitiveness to any public references to her and her family.

Take the case of Steffano Maino, Sonia's father. He comes out as a model patriarch, devoted to his three daughters and determined to instill in them the best of Italian family values. But it is mentioned, inter alia, that he was a bricklayer who prospered enough to become a mason. That must have offended Congress sensibilities. Also offensive must have been the use of the term au pair in reference to Sonia. The author uses it in the most circumspect manner possible. ["Her parents] were not prepared for their daughter to be an au pair and live with just any family in any city. They chose Cambridge..." But the dictionary meaning of au pair is "a young foreign person, esp. a woman, helping with housework etc. in exchange for room, board and pocket money, esp. as a means of learning a foreign language". That was what Sonia did in Cambridge, though patriotic Congress attempts have been to emphasise that she "went to Cambridge to study".

Perhaps the biggest offence was the reference to Sonia wishing to return to Italy. The author quotes without hesitation: "One day, in desperation, Sonia told Rajiv: 'If you are thinking of going into politics, I'll ask for a separation and I'll go back to Italy' ". That was probably another "dramatised" bit by the author, although many sources have referred to Sonia wanting to go to Italy with the children when things were dangerously bad for Indira. Right or wrong, Congress leaders would tolerate no such reference as their primary article of faith is that Sonia is wholly Indian.

The book ends with Sonia's decision not to assume Prime Ministership when it was all hers to take. An epilogue updates the account to take in the 2014 rout of the Congress. Although the author records that the "young prince Rahul has failed to rise to the occasion", he sounds the gong for the family by saying that the Congress may well come back to power "under the aegis of another Gandhi -- perhaps Indira's only granddaughter, Priyanka".

No wonder the Congress conjured up the "ban" strategy to make the gullible, like me, read the book. Good money gone.


Monday, January 19, 2015

Rajapaksa was no Indira, Gotabaya was sadistic; Lanka can now regain its democratic glory


In yet another miracle of history, Sri Lanka has survived its Indira Gandhi phase. The Rajapaksa family twisted the Constitution to achieve what Indira did with the Emergency. A family dictatorship took over, ruthlessly supervised by President Mahinda's brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Parliament was turned into a branch of the executive, the judiciary into a rubberstamp. The press was handcuffed; a prominent editor was shot dead, openly in daylight, as if to send a message. Critics were picked up in what became the country's most infamous symbol of terror -- the Police White Van. The fate of citizens who were taken away in "white van abductions" was known only to Gotabaya's henchmen.

Then, in the ultimate Indira-Gandhian irony, the President declared an election. There was no obligation for him to do so, just as there was none for Indira in 1977. They both voluntarily called elections because they both desired to have the veneer of democratic legitimacy. And, like Indira, Mahinda lost the gamble. The parallelism may end there because the new Government in Colombo will not be like the Janata Party farce in Delhi in 1977. Besides, Mahinda will have neither the mass adulation that made Indira formidable in defeat, nor the personal guts and gumption that enabled her to fight her way to a political reincarnation.

That Mahinda was no Indira became evident when he made desperate moves to save his skin in the eleventh hour. As Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, he asked the Generals to annul the election. They declined. As the final authority in appointing all civil servants, all judges and all police officers, he ordered police chiefs to move in. They declined. Would anyone in the Delhi establishment have dared to disobey Indira? Let that difference make us feel humble before our island neighbour. When history called, Sri Lanka's army and police declined to obey illegal orders. In India even the Supreme Court crawled when asked to bend.

The Rajapaksas' intelligence agencies also proved inefficient, perhaps due to over-confidence. They sustained the myth that the opposition was divided when in fact the very experienced Chandrika Kumaratunge and Ranil Wikramasinghe were secretly plotting out new strategies. Intelligence believed also that the popularity of the victory over LTTE was still working for the Rajapaksas when, in truth, mega projects proclaiming the ruling family's corruption had alienated even Sinhala opinion in key areas. Gotabaya's brainchild, the Bodu Bala Sena, a variation of Nigeria's Boko Haram terrorists, shocked not only Lankan Muslims but also the educated middle class and the elite in the cities.

The middle class had kept "Ceylon" a vibrant democracy when it attained independence (although with the tag Dominion attached to the name) in 1948. The Colombo press was not second to Fleet Street in London in spirit or in style. The headquarters of the Ceylon Daily News, known as Lake House, had become a sort of pilgrimage point for journalists from around the world. Bylines from Colombo won international attention -- Tarzie Vittachi, Denzil Peiris, Merwin Desilva, B.H.S, Jayawardene.

Soon, alas, linguistic chauvinism raised its head to destroy everything. Politicians saw a chance to build up their voter appeal by pitting Sinhalese majority (70 percent) against the main minority, Tamils. Within a year of independence the voting rights of Tamils were cancelled. In 1956 S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike rose to power on the promise of making Sinhala the only national language. Ethnic riots enveloped the country and Emergency was proclaimed in 1958. Tarzie Vittachi wrote Emergency '58 in secret and went into exile. S.W.R.D's wife Sirimavo made things worse; among other things, she nationalised Lake House. The country had to wait for the Bandaranaikes' daughter Chandrika to become President in 1994 for some elements of democracy to be restored. But it was too late. Velupillai Prabhakaran had started a war in the name of Tamils, bringing more harm than before to the Tamils and leading, eventually, to the cruellest ethnic cleansing campaign in Lankan history.

If anyone can bring the country back to its democratic equilibrium, it is the new dispensation. President Maitripala Sirisena is a clean and non-controversial figure. Prime Minister Ranil Wikramasinghe is known for his ability, experience and balanced approach to problems. The cabinet includes several Tamils and Muslims. If they adopt a national reconciliation policy and a businesslike approach to rebuilding Sri Lanka, they will have the hopes of the whole region riding with them. Let the law take care of the Rajapaksas -- in the slow but steady manner of the law.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Congress's revival plans are mere shadow-plays: What's needed is withdrawal by the Gandhis


The Congress Party is devising idea after idea to stay relevant, but the exercise is proving to be hopeless. It no doubt expected great impact, for example, when it announced that Sonia Gandhi, "back in action after a brief illness" has "shot off" letters to party general secretaries saying that she approved of Rahul Gandhi's plans to revive the party. Are Congressmen dumb enough to think that Indians are dumb? How lucky can the BJP get?

And what is Shri Rahul's revival plan? Last year the party publicised what it called "The open manifesto process: Pathbreaking political reform". It said that Rahul interacted with tribals, caste organisations, minorities, women's groups, ex-servicemen, railway porters, rickshaw-pullers and so on to gather their suggestions. All suggestions were "carefully considered" and included in the party's manifesto "wherever feasible". Even the dumb will understand those last two words.

Another plan attributed to Rahul was to let some of the very old leaders retire. The very old leaders publicly welcomed the idea, then sabotaged it from within. Now Rahul is said to be putting the final touches to a plan that would require chief ministers to secure the approval of party presidents in their states before key policy decisions are taken. There isn't a chance in hell of this idea getting implemented. Tussle between chief ministers and party presidents is a fixed feature of Congress-ruled states. It is raging in Karnataka and Kerala and no High Command seems capable of controlling it.

Revival ideas from the party's presumed elders sound no better. Digvijay Singh, specialist in speaking out of turn, said that Rahul should take fulltime charge of the Congress. In the same breath he added that Rahul lacked the ruler's temperament. So how can a man with no disposition to rule become a fulltime ruler? Such conundrums do not stop Digvijay Singh. He is the talking equivalent of the Moving Finger which writes and, having writ, moves on.

Another wise man of the Congress, P. Chidambaram, wanted Rahul to speak more. That the Congress lost in every constituency where Rahul spoke is a minor detail that doesn't deter leaders whose ambitions hang on the Gandhi family's backing. Chidambaram gave a hint of his daydream when he said that a non-Gandhi could become the party's president. A willing patriot could be found in, say, Sivaganga with the added attraction of his own dynasty in tow.

A lesser star from the Pune region, Anant Gadgil, thought up a "campaign to lift the morale" of party workers. The gist of the plan is: "I will give 25 to 30 talking points against the BJP". A rather modest man, restricting himself to the 25-30 range when others would have offered a hundred or a thousand sticks to beat the BJP to death.

With the BJP's stars on the ascendance, it looks likely that Congress will go for some of the more dangerous ideas that have been aired for its revival. One is to retreat from its pro-minority stance. That means developing a pro-majority stance. The very thought that the Congress can compete with the BJP for the Hindutva vote is not just ludicrous; it is ominous for the plurality that has sustained the constitutional integrity of this country all these years.

Also aired by the top brass in the Congress is a Go Back policy: Go back to Sheila Dixit's glory days in the governance of Delhi and to Jawaharlal Nehru's halcyon days in the building of India. Going back 15 years and 60 years is of course better than going back 4000 years when Indians could perform interspecies organ transplant and stuff like that. But why go back at all when everyone else is going forward? Besides, Sheila Dixit was overtaken by scandals, especially during the infamous Commonwealth Games. Nehru had his triumphs -- and also his tragedies.

There is only one plan that will revive the Congress. This is for Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi to completely withdraw from politics and public life, preferably settling abroad. True, the Gandhi family has been the only pivot around which the party's warring factions could unite. With them gone, factionalism will work havoc in the party. This should be welcomed because, out of the factional wars will emerge forces that have legitimacy. There are young and capable leaders in the party. They cannot rise because only Rahul Gandhi is allowed to rise. This imposed growth obstacle is what keeps the Congress in dwarf status. India is a land for giants.



Monday, January 5, 2015

2014 made history. Rapid growth is now possible if the fanatics do not steal Modi's thunder


Don't dismiss 2014 as dead and gone. It will be recorded as a watershed year, like 1975, the year of the Emergency. With this difference -- that the change of direction in 1975 was for the worse whereas the change of direction in 2014 has the potential to be for the better. Whether that potential will be realised depends on one man and since that man is keen to leave his imprint on history, there is ground for optimism.

The rise of Narendra Modi, the biggest event of 2014, is unlike anything that has happened in the politics of India before. Not only is he unquestioned in his party; his freedom of action is greatly enhanced by the collapse of the entire opposition. The Congress, flattened by its worst humiliation in living memory, is unable to get to its feet again because it is unable to think beyond the Family Rule that ruined it. The Janata formations have united, but under the same tired old leaders who have nothing to offer except their same tired old egos. The Left threw away every opportunity that came its way and has shrunk to virtual nothingness. Narendra Modi is India's most powerful prime minister ever because he has no challengers in sight.

But he faces challenges and 2014 showed how some of them can be intractable. Crimes against women and children, for example. Delhi is shamed by the rape capital sobriquet while the country's most literate state, Kerala, is setting records in sexual attacks on children and infants. Add on other familiar features of our everyday life such as domestic violence, dowry deaths, female infanticide and acid throwing, and we'll see how ghoulish our civilisation has become. Continuing corruption is another challenge.Fastidiously opposed to the kickback culture, Modi still faces the reality of entrenched nexus between bureaucrats, politicians and the mafia. The discovery of Rs 15 crore in cash in a car in Noida recently led to the further discovery of diamonds and gold jewellery worth more than Rs 100 crore, all belonging to a former chief engineer. Similar cases come up across the country -- of "collections" by policemen, in sub-registrars' offices, at excise checkposts. They cannot be passed over as state subjects. They are a national malaise.

Compared to Pakistan, there were not many terrorist strikes in India in 2014. But the year-end explosion in Bangalore was a reminder of the ever present danger. That incident also revealed that we have disfunctional CCTV cameras, slow-to-respond police systems and, as the Chief Minister admitted, a lack of intelligence gathering expertise. We are simply not serious about meeting the challenge of terrorism. Can the Prime Minister afford to let it be?

The biggest challenge confronting Modi in 2015 is that his development agenda is in danger of being hijacked by his own cheerleaders. His dedication to the agenda won acclaim across ideological divides when Suresh Prabhu and Manohar Parrikar, men of proven merit, were given the critical Railway and Defence portfolios respectively. But they and Modi himself were upstaged by the likes of Swamy Adityanath, Sakshi Maharaj, Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti, Giriraj Singh, Praveen Togadia et al. Their misdeeds punctured the national ethos in two ways. First, they spread communal enmities, creating fear and resentment among minorities and disturbance in the minds of others. Secondly, the Prime Minister took no effective steps to stop them, thereby giving the impression that he supported them. Not that he was unaware of the need to stop divisive extremists. As Chief Minister, he had reduced Togadia to a nonentity. Why is the same man now roaming around making hate speeches? Why were Sakshi Maharaj and Niranjan Jyoti allowed to get away with regrets expressed so unconvincingly? Why was Giriraj Singh rewarded with a ministership? Modi's adversaries cannot be blamed if they say that his real agenda is not development but something else.

That could well be wrong, however. Modi knows he cannot achieve his historical ambitions by evolving as a Hindu leader. He has to be the leader of all Indians; he must not only be a modernist but be seen as one by the world. He will lose his chance if the fanatic fringe steals his thunder. We should hope, for his sake as well as for India's sake, that he is biding his time and that, once he gains the upper hand in the states and in Rajya Sabha, he will suppress those who would derail his plans. If he succeeds, it will be India's success.



Monday, December 29, 2014

Xi. Putin. Obama. The new India arouses curiosity; But we have weaknesses they will exploit


Reforms that will change the conditions of life in India are under way. We can see their implications more clearly if we look at them in the context of the Prime Minister's foreign policy excursions. Narendra Modi's flair for foreign affairs is by now legend. Not only has he had some triumphal rallies abroad; Xi Jinping came and went in a blaze of celebratory razzmatazz. Vladimir Putin has come and gone with deals ranging from diamonds to nuclear plants. Barack Obama is set to dominate Republic Day, dwarfing the military showpieces on parade. The world is discovering India with a curiosity and esteem last seen in Jawaharlal Nehru's early days.

But Nehru was tricked by the Mountbattens and then by Chou Enlai. The result was a virtually unsolvable Kashmir problem and the China war. There are already signs that Modi may be taken in by a demanding America, an assertive China and a disappointed Russia. Are we at a disadvantage, irrespective of who is the Prime Minister, because of deficiencies in our national character? We do have a tendency to be carried away by public relations dramatics. And we do lack a sense of historical continuity in our governance system.

The tendency to mistake publicity brouhaha for substance made us go ga-ga recently over Modi's place in a Time magazine stunt. This was just a magazine's marketing gimmick. Besides, its so-called competition for Man of the Year title is a trick; it's a nomination, not an election by readers. Yet our cheerleaders fell for the trick, and our media was breathless in reporting "Modi tops the list", then "Modi drops to second position" and so on. No other country attaches importance to this familiar media fiddle. For Indians, however, a good chit by a foreign source is the ultimate achievement. Is that all we are worth?

Worse is our tendency to see a change of government as a new beginning for the country, not as a continuation of India's march towards greatness in a changing world. Every government that comes to power ignores and sometimes repudiates those before them. This became ludicrous when Sonia Gandhi tried to turn P.V.Narasimha Rao into a non-person. When we don't have a sense of continuity, we don't have a longterm view of our national priorities.

China presents a study in contrast. The shift from Mao Zedong to Deng Hsiaoping was fundamental while that from Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping has been radical. But China presents it all as continuity. There is no criticism of previous regimes. The dominant note is national pride as could be seen from a People's Daily headline a couple of months ago. It said: "Mao Zedong made Chinese people stand up; Deng Hsiaoping made Chinese people rich; Xi Jinping will make Chinese people strong".

Against this real world, where do we stand? Especially against American pressure with the combined might of the big corporations and the White House? US interests have been focussed on agriculture and pharmaceuticals, basics that cover India's entire billion-plus market. In agriculture Monsanto gained at the cost of India's own highly competent seed technologies. US drug companies were kept at bay by Indian laws that sought to maintain the prices of lifesaving drugs at affordable levels. This precious protection is now under threat. Big Pharma from the US will soon be able to fully own Indian companies and thereby influence drug prices. Obama has been fighting in his own country to make drug companies interested in patients as well as in profits. He has not succeeded. How then can India maintain price levels?

If that is the situation in a field where India has high levels of competence, what about the military front where we are several years behind? China has surrounded India with military assets while it objects to our building even roads along the northern frontier. As for Russia, there was a time when it was India's most valuable strategic ally. A measure of how much things have changed lately was the military pact Russia signed with Pakistan a few weeks ago. It would serve India's long-term interests, said Putin in a memorable political joke of our time.

The lesson to learn is that smiles, cheering rallies and celebratory publicity are all fine, but they are on the surface. To reach the substance underneath, we must acquire America's and China's and Russia's abilities to play hard ball and play it with a hundred-year vision. That's right, a vision that goes beyond the next election.